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Seeking an end to a degrading occupation

One man's campaign to help manual scavengers to a better life

Seeking an end to a degrading occupation

Former manual scavengers at a prayer meeting in Delhi

Ritu Sharma, New Delhi

November 19, 2013

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Four decades ago, Bindeshwar Pathak initiated a campaign that has now liberated more than a million people from a degrading occupation.

It is known politely as 'manual scavenging.'

Manual scavengers clean animal or human waste from dry toilets and carry it to disposal grounds elsewhere. It usually involves having to crawl into dug toilets, removing the waste with a broom and putting it into a basket. It is still, by and large, an occupation invariably carried out by a caste called 'the untouchables" - or Dalits.

“It was very difficult," Pathak said. "These people were not willing to give up their jobs as they were considered untouchable and not accepted in mainstream society. They thought, 'what else would they do?' "

But then an incident in the late 1960s made Pathak even more determined.

“I saw a little boy being chased by a bull. People went to save the boy but then, suddenly, someone said 'that boy is from an untouchable community.' Everyone stepped back. The boy did not survive the attack. That day I made a promise to myself that I will change the destiny of these people who are looked down on by other sections of society,” he said.

“So I targeted households that had dry toilets. If there are no dry toilets, there would be no manual scavengers."

Pathak has now rendered 640 towns free from manual scavenging. A million ex-scavengers are now self-dependent, with the help of education and vocational training they have received at the Sulabh International, an institute founded by Pathak in 1970. Today it is the country’s largest nongovernmental organization working in the field of sanitation.

Central to its success are Pathak's toilets. Hygienic, technically appropriate, socio-culturally acceptable, they are above all affordable and easy to construct with locally available materials.

Usha Chaumar is one beneficiary. She said her family had been manual scavengers for generations and she feels blessed to be able to leave it. 

She was scared to give up the task, she said,  when Pathak approached her in 2003. “If we will not do it then someone else will, because dry toilets need cleaning,” she said at the time. 

Guddi Athwan, a former manual scavenger from Alwar, told that higher caste people have traditionally avoided her community, but now even that was beginning to change.

“With the education and training, we have started earning well. Some women learned tailoring, took up the job of a beautician and some learned to make pickles and other kitchen stuff,” she said.

Athwan also said that many former scavengers have seen a dramatic rise in their salaries, earning up to US$166 a month compared to the $3 they earned scavenging.

Continuing to address his challenge, Pathak has now made around 1.2 million affordable pour-flush toilets, in rural and backward areas throughout the country.

He said he has not patented his techniques as “it is for the people to use it. I want to give it to mankind. It is for them. Why should I patent it?”

Due to his work in the field of hygiene and sanitation with an aim to uplift the poor and marginalized, Pathak, a Hindu, was awarded the international St. Francis prize for the environment by Pope John Paul II in 1992.

In 1974, Pathak introduced the idea of public toilets for the first time in India, building his first public toilet in Patna, state capital of Bihar.

“Initially, people took it up as a joke. Nobody believed that such a concept could work in India where people are so used to defecating in the open,” he said.

There are now 8,000 use-and-pay public toilets in the country operated by his NGO. He has also built a toilet complex in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Apart from constructing toilet facilities, the NGO also provides hygiene and sanitation education in rural and slum areas and provides health care facilities for the poor and the marginalized.

Pathak also has built a Museum of Toilets, a first of its kind in the world, in New Delhi highlighting the history of toilets since 2,500 BC to date.

Calling for a greater attention to the sanitation crisis globally, the United Nations in July adopted a resolution, initiated by Singapore, to declare November 19 as World Toilet Day.

“I was there in the Singapore meeting and proposed the idea of a World Toilet Day and a date for it. The idea was liked by everyone and presented before the UN which accepted it,” Pathak said.

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